Diversity vs Tokenism

Giannina Rodriguez Rico is the Founding Director of an all-female-identifying film and tv production collective SISTERS ON SCREEN and has deffered the year from reading International Development at King’s to pursue her career as a screenwriter, director and producer.

The issues surrounding race and ethnicity have thrown feminism into a crisis and have served to contest the homogenising idea of ‘sisterhood’. There is an awareness that our shared gender does not guarantee enough of a commonality in social positioning and as Elizabeth Spelman (1988: p.14) rightly states, ‘even if we say all women are oppressed by sexism we cannot automatically conclude that the sexism all women experience is the same’.

As a woman of Hispanic-Latino descent, I am implicated in this crisis, and I am in a position where white feminists encourage me to turn my difference into intellectual and political capital. The issue is that ethnic women are often adopted as symbols of progress, as if ethnicity is the only pertinent point of our existence, and are denied our full range of humanity in the process. The fetishisation and tokenisation of ethnic women is often dismissed as a non-issue because it is construed as a positive assimilation of the ‘other’. In ‘White People Love Me: Dispatches From The Token’ Morgan Parker writes;

Here is the curse of the token: the tokeniser (see: white supremacy, see: white men, see: oppressor, see: majority) thinks they are doing the token a favour, giving a gift. The gift is isolation, is limitation, is submission.

Our voices are revered by white feminists as they are seen as essential in contesting and correcting the old exclusions of the established feminist order. In the early days of women’s liberation politics black women and women of colour were invited to feminist events in the expectation that they would ‘speak for’ black women. Such tokenism did not allow a black woman to speak on issues of motherhood or disability as she was considered an ‘expert’ on race.

The issue of ‘faux progression’ often arises in academia with the works of ethnic women often intermingled within a women’s studies curriculum. This is not a sign of inclusivity, as it simply mirrors all of the the previous modes of pedagogy that marginalise ethnic students, whilst reifying white hegemony. Modules or classes that deal exclusively with the works of black women, indigenous women and Latina women signify a failure to fully integrate the work of women of colour in all academic endeavours. The ghettoisation of the work of women of colour too often frames white womanhood as monolithic form.

There is a failure to do what should be asked of feminist movements, which is to centre a racial analysis in feminist and queer work; to do the difficult work of naming power differences between us; and to acknowledge multiple systems of violence, and the presence of our personal selves in such systems. In her 1980 essay ‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex,’ Lorde draws on philosopher Paolo Freire to insist that “the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors tactics, the oppressors’ relationships” (p.115).

It is important that there is a shift from identifying with the oppressions of others to examining our own oppressive tactics. We need to resist not only the white supremacist heteropatriarchal structures that harm us, but also keep also keep ourselves from upholding those structures, and practice radical self-critique.

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